CLASSICS: On Jane Eyre and Children's Literature

The Victorian Era was marred with growing concerns for children and led to increased interest in the types of literature which they were consuming. Children’s literature in and of itself was, by the early days of the Victorian Era, relatively new, having been pioneered in and just before the early Gregorian era, around the 1700s, prior to which children generally read gothic chapbook romance novels, which were sexually explicit, somewhat twisted and dark material intended for adult readers. It was the works of early enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and  Jean Jacques Rousseau on the importance childhood education and moral protectionism which is generally thought to have influenced the coming of childhood literature, though, by the time of the Victorian Era, the public perception of children was quite different. These two philosophers had different views on the nature of the importance of childhood, both of which influenced predominant thought-patterns of theVictorian Era. While John Locke argued that children were blank slates to be curated and morally guided, writing of children, in his book, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) “Let not any fearful Apprehensions be talked into them, nor terrible Objects surprise them. This often so shatters, and discomposes the Spirits; that they never recover it again; but during their whole Life, upon the first suggestion, or appearance of any terrifying idea, are scatter’d and confounded”, Rousseau argued that children were inherently innocent, corrupted only by societal influences. 

These developed into a dual-minded era on the nature of children, on the one hand being idolized and thought of as the romantic embodiment of pure innocent, on the other, being understood as inherently sinful and needing strict guidance to embody evangelical purposes. These two views, though inherently and irrevocably separate, are not, to Lewis C. Roberts in his essay on children’s fiction, irreconcilable, and the early sections of his essay focus on this duality, implying that both of these ways of thinking invited the creation of a distinct separation between childhood and adulthood. Both philosophies also lead to a very similar style of parenting: specifically, one which promotes John Locke’s ideal of shielding children from gothic imagery for fear of corruption. While the evangelical method of thinking, which implied children were ungodly creatures most directly fits this model (i.e. if children are inherently sinful, then one must remove them from all frightful images and further temptations, drilling them towards a morally righteous future), the romantic view of children as the purest form of innocence also very neatly fits into this mode of education, for if children are truly pure, then only by shielding them from evil could one preserve this innocence. These schools of thought, then, can be directly linked to both growing fears about the corrupting nature of certain types of literature for children, and the developing concern for poor and working-class children who were used as labour during the industrial era. 

These, undeniably, are the most relevant points from Lewis C. Roberts’ essay for the exploration of Jane Eyre and its place in the Victorian-Era concerns about childhood. While Jane Eyre does not specifically address the plight of working-class children, it does allude to them, through Jane’s own fear and prejudice towards the poor as a child, leading to her fear and compliance with Mrs. Reed and the other children. The fact of her economic status is continually brought up to her disparagement, implicating her as a burden and as a lesser human, whom should, despite the abusive treatment she receives, be thankful for the Reeds and their “charity”. This idea, of poor children, even poor children who are loved in ways that Jane wasn’t, as being inherently unhappy and in decidedly worse condition than she, looms over Jane’s entire stay at Gateshead Hall. It weaves its way through Bessie’s scoldings and through the ways in which every adult refers to Mrs. Reed as a charitable woman being kind to Jane. The absolute unfairness of Jane’s treatment at Gateshead Hall and later at Lowood is emblematic of this growing concern for orphans and children of uncertain economic status, Charlotte Brönte seeming insistent on bringing these concerns to light. Most notable, however, is the way in which Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst are treated by society: despite their cruel actions towards children, they portray themselves as charitable to them, instituting harsh double standards and intense hypocrisy, which seems to be a commentary on the concern for children being a ‘trend’ of sorts for members of British high society, who weren’t feeling genuine concern, but instead used these children for their own gain. 

By contrast, once Mr. Brocklehurst is exposed and Lowood is handed over to new management, real change begins to take place. The conditions for these children improve, and the actions of Miss Temple throughout Jane’s stay at Lowood are used as a foil to these high society hypocrites: She, despite lacking in status, finds a way to help and truly care for the children. Her actions as an educator are also viewed as morally correct due to her inherent kindness and empathy, as contrasted by Miss Scatcherd in her treatment of Jane’s close friend, Helen Burns. Miss Temple, on the one hand, chooses to encourage and help Helen Burns by showing kindness and sympathy for her, and by praising her for her accomplishments and maturity (thus inherently embodying a romantic notion of the child as being pure and innocent). Miss Scatcherd, however, constantly scolds, humiliates, criticizes and abuses Helen Burns for what she theoretically perceives as shortcomings in her character, but which the novel implies is most definitely a result of her knowledge that Helen Burns, as an abandoned child, can be abused without repercussions. 

This, alongside the lack of proper food, shelter and care which Helen Burns endures, leads to both her sad worldview, according to which happiness need not be found in life, and should instead be sought for in the afterlife, and her tragic death by consumption. Similarly, Jane Eyre’s own childhood trauma related to being described as “wicked” and “deceitful” for much of her life, as well as “plain-looking”, which is implied to relate to these prior qualifiers, follows her into adulthood, turning her into someone who, despite her strong will, intellect, and numerous achievements, consistently doubts her own worth in relation to society. The novel itself, contrasting Jane’s upbringing with Mr. Rochester, who is also decidedly unhandsome, seems however resolutely undecided on whether or not this lasting scar should be regarded as a failure of the evangelical system or a success. Indeed, Jane’s modesty is hailed by the novel, while Mr. Rochester’s pride is regarded as one of his most crucial flaws, and Jane’s ability to think critically about herself is related intimately to her kindness towards others and her superiority to the cruel high society women she encounters who look down upon her.

Similarly, while Jane removes Adèle from the strict school she is sent to after her own departure, in favour of a kinder one, Adèle is praised for her docile mannerisms as an adult. Therefore, while the novel shows vehement distaste for the abuse and neglect of children, especially abandoned and orphaned children like Jane, Helen Burns and Adèle, it praises evangelical values and docility in grown women, showcasing a paradoxical desire for children to be approached with respect, kindness and appreciation, and a perhaps internalized notion of the place of women in society as being infantilized. Both children and women are praised for docility and obedience in Victorian society and in Jane Eyre, however, the novel treats the control and abuse of children as cruel, while it deems such instances as inevitable in the case of women. Jane Eyre, then, is a novel which details the torment of two groups with little to no rights in Victorian society, and, unfortunately, deems one of these torments, almost certainly due to the author’s own circumstances, as at least partially acceptable.